Today, dear listener, we’re pleased to have a fascinating interview with author Michael Griffin. We probe the roots of his writing, stagger across troubled psychogeography, cross-question him on his latest release, Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone, and more. In the process he neither confirms nor denies that his entire image of womanhood is based on a Triune interpretation of Irish goddesses. Nor does he mend our oven door (the handle’s come off again). But he does talk about imagery, inspiration and interpretation, which is a Good Thing. Oh, and he sets us straight on trout…
As usual, the interesting stuff is in the interview which follows, but here’s a quick introduction. In early 2016, American writer Michael Griffin released his debut collection, The Lure of Devouring Light, which brought together some of the dark stories which had already got him noticed. This was followed by a limited edition publication from Dim Shores, the novella An Ideal Retreat, with art by Mikio Murakami – which sold out. And then, this year, came his first novel, Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone.
Never shy of poking sticks at people, we at greydogtales shoved our cold, wet noses in to find out what was happening. Although he publishes as Michael Griffin, in order to protect his identity we shall refer to him as ‘Mike’ below.
greydog: Welcome to greydogtales, Mike. There’s no reason why a writer can’t be a cipher, a constructed front for public recognition. The person is not the work. However, we know that many people like to get a feel for who they’re reading, so maybe you could start by sharing something about yourself.
mike: Many things about me might be deduced from my writing, though of course it’s often a mistake to assume a writer’s characters are variations on the writer’s self. I live in Oregon and much of my writing is set there – often in or around Portland, sometimes on the Oregon Coast or near Mt. Hood, all the places I love and spend most of my time. I’m very interested in nature and being outdoors, at the same time I’m fearful and in awe of it, and fascinated by how disinterested the natural world seems in the concerns of human beings.
We like to believe we’re powerful, if not individually then as a society, yet I can venture only a mile or two off the road and find myself in circumstances I can’t handle. This is something I come back to again and again in my work, and that’s because it interests me in my life. These aspects of me, at least, are apparent in my work.
greydog: It’s not uncommon for weird fiction writers to start with classic influences, such as Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, and then move into their own unique forms and styles. We ourselves admit to coming from various British roots, such as William Hope Hodgson. We don’t really detect that in your work. Did you ever go through such a phase?
mike: I went through a phase of reading Lovecraft and Poe when I was younger, and though I enjoy their work and revisit it from time to time, I’ve never felt their influence more than generally, or wished I could write the way they write. More recently, I delved for the first time into the works of other classic writers of the weird, including Machen, Blackwood, Chambers and M.R. James. Some of these I liked even better than the “big names,” Lovecraft and Poe, especially Machen and Blackwood. Still I don’t feel myself trying to emulate any of these. I’m probably influenced to a greater extent by more modern writers of the weird, as well as by more mainstream writers of the past hundred years or so.
greydog: You began by writing short stories, and although we want to talk mostly about Hieroglyphs, last year saw the release of your first collection, The Lure of Devouring Light. It was a strong debut with an excellent selection of your short fiction. How did you find the process of having to make that selection? Easy, or nail-biting?
mike: Not easy, in that a lot of work and consideration and re-consideration went into it, but not exactly stressful or nail-biting. I was mainly concerned that I might include a story that was dear to me but which would diminish the book, and so not only did I really try to be a tough judge of my own work, but I told a couple of people whose opinions I trust that I hoped they’d let me know if anything in my planned Table of Contents didn’t belong. I’d like to believe that I put enough thought and worry into that stage of the process that I ended up with a selection of my work that was strong, consistent and representative.
greydog: Others have talked about the importance of landscape in the collection, and you’ve started the ball rolling on that aspect already, in your comments above. The term psychogeography springs to mind. Your story ‘Far from the Streets’, in particular, might be said to contain pre-echoes of Hieroglyphs. Rivers, changing landscapes and locations which may or may not exist. Is this thematic element a conscious thing, or something which flows naturally as you write?
mike: I’m fascinated by things, people and places that attract us, but might ensnare us, or be dangerous to us in some way we don’t first perceive. This notion comes through in the title of the book, which suggests the idea of being drawn in by something which attracts or entices us, but has the power to destroy or consume. This dichotomy is certainly true of nature. The more beautiful and more truly wild, the greater the risk to the visitor. It’s one thing to visit a public park or a forest that’s been groomed for tourists, that has parking lots and paved walkways and restrooms with running water, but if you want an experience of deeper nature, you have to venture away from safety and comfort.
Also aside from the question of nature, there’s the idea that the familiar is comfortable, safe and boring, while the unfamiliar is enticing, beautiful and exotic, but with this more exciting quality comes risk and potential threat. This idea permeates many of my stories, and in most cases the journey is from the former to the latter.
greydog: Lure is also very much about relationships, which brings us to Hieroglyphs at full steam. Let’s start by saying that Hieroglyphs is an easy book to read and a hard one to define (we’ll come back to that). We found it a page-turner, but not for the usual ‘plot’ reasons. The core is Guy, a man whose relationship has failed, who seems to dwell in a hinterland of doubts. Where did Guy come from? Personal history, acquaintances, or pure invention?
mike: It seems pretty clear that relationships and human emotions and desires are pretty central in all my work. Though I have an amazing wife, a story about a marriage between people who treat each other well and enjoy each other’s company would probably be boring to the reader. For this reason, I have to draw on other aspects of human relations. Guy is not very much like the way I am now, but I was quite different in my twenties. I was more indecisive, often more passive. I tended to spend more time inwardly debating what I should do than taking effective action on my own behalf.
In that sense, Guy is somewhat like my former self. What if I had married young, and remained stuck at that emotional state, instead of being toughened up by a range of difficult experiences? That’s an oversimplification, but it’s not far off to say Guy is who I might’ve become if I’d married one of my earliest girlfriends right after college, and twenty years later found myself surprisingly, abruptly divorced and very confused about what to do next, and no experience really living alone.
greydog: We found him a frustrating character at times. His failure to grasp his own identity, his way of defining (or failing to define) himself through others. One of the strengths of your writing is that you engage us in the character. Did you never want to just stop and slap him?
mike: This makes me happy, because Guy frustrates me, too. He seems to frustrate himself, most of all! Very often Guy knows what he ought to do, but finds himself stuck, burdened by self-doubt or fear or inertia, and fails to do what he must. He certainly has opportunities to stand up for himself, or take action on his own behalf, but sometimes manages to do something other than what he should. Of course, this is not real life but a story, so if the writer always had the character do the most sensible, practical, common sense thing, the story would lose urgency and tension, I think. Also, it’s much easier to see what another person ought to do in their situation than to apply that kind of insight to oneself. You know, easier to give your friend advice than see yourself with the same sharp insight!
Actually, I appreciate you saying that a strength of my work is engaging the reader in the character. I believe if a writer can accomplish that much, they can get away with almost anything. Tricking the reader into feeling engaged, into wanting something on the character’s behalf, or fearing outcomes that might hurt a character, that’s a big part of what a writer strives for.
greydog: On the other hand, your female characters are quite different to your protagonist. At one point we began to wonder if all the key women in the book were facets of one person. Not literally but in a Morrigna sense – aspects of the Goddess. Michelle (his ex-wife), Sadie and Lily all interact with the questioning, confused Guy in their own ways, never meeting but always on his mind.
mike: The story is designed to preserve some degree of mystery or uncertainty about the women. Clearly Guy used to be married to Michelle, a seemingly ordinary woman he met in school, and was married to for a long time. But after his divorce, his emotions and frustrations build up, and his imagination and dreams and dream-like waking states are increasingly more important.
The mystery and confusion in the story primarily arises out of Guy’s fixation on women he’s seen from across a room, women his roommate has told him about, women he hears, women he sees, women he meets, finally women with whom he engages, and so on. His mind constructs a narrative of identity and connectivity, some of which may be true, but probably not all. Part of Guy’s problem with women is seeing them not exactly as real people but as ideals or archetypes, actresses in the story of his life. Maybe the failure is of his own conception, or maybe he’s bringing an impaired idea of how one interacts with women to a situation carrying its own mysteries. I’m reluctant to decode this too much, and I kind of enjoy retaining a level of mystery or confusion about this aspect of the story.
greydog: Symbols and the contents of books play a large part in Hieroglyphs (as the title suggests), but unlike the forbidden signs and texts of many weird tales, here they are elusive and even transitory. Their exact forms are left to the reader’s imagination. We’re interested in the visual aspects of writing – did you yourself see such hieroglyphs in your mind as you wrote, or did they remain elusive even to you?
mike: Yes, there are symbols, signs, letterforms and sigils everywhere in the story, not just in the contents of books. Even nature itself is full of these messages in the form of ornaments to be found seemingly at random, whether it’s shapes carved into tree trunks or dangling from branches, arrangements of bone, or blood smeared on rock in shapes that resemble words. When I’m writing about something visual, I accumulate a sort of private reference library relevant to what I’m doing. I keep these materials at hand, and use these triggers when I need help seeing or describing something from the story, or just for general inspiration. I wanted some aspects of the story, especially Guy’s interactions with Lily on her territory, to be richly visual and full of a dreamlike abundance of detail and sensory information.
greydog: Aaron Besson said, of Hieroglyphs, “Not a book for people who absolutely need to have closure in their stories, but for anyone else who appreciates tales of the Modern Weird, you shouldn’t miss out on this.” We tend to agree, with the proviso that closure would very probably have weakened the book. What remains unelucidated is what intrigues most. How do you feel about that side of it?
mike: I’m glad you agree, and also gratified by what Aaron Besson said. The one worry I had about this story was that some readers would be frustrated by the mystery, and might feel like the book cheated them of the answers they desired. I wanted the story to have emotional closure, and to reach a point that made sense and was logically clear and balanced, but without having to tie up every confusing aspect we saw along the way with a tidy answer. Mystery and confusion are aspects I enjoy generally, and particularly in this story, I felt they were important, maybe even central.
greydog: We said earlier that the novel is hard to define. Somewhere else we playfully suggested ‘magical realism’. It might be called Mainstream Weird, or Weird Mainstream (we avoid the term Literary, which can get a bit annoying). Categorisation can be a curse, though publishers and retailers seem to find it desirable. Is Hieroglyphs the start of a move away from weird fiction as such, or only one of many directions you want to explore?
mike: At times I worry a bit that I’m outside some kind of boundary, but that’s probably normal for any kind of writer. I will say that I’m not consciously trying to transcend or transgress any particular genre, Weird Fiction or any other. The best answer, I guess, is that I hope my writing is compelling enough that people will seek it even if some aspects of the work are outside their comfort zone, or seem to signify something they might not ordinarily read.
My work might be more “Mainstream” in some aspects, in particular the close focus on the matters of real life — relationships, jobs, places to live, food and drink — than much Weird fiction. But mine’s still plenty weird! I just believe that if you can tell a story that’s strong and interesting on the Mainstream/Literary merits alone, you can potentially interest different readers who might not normally read something considered Weird.
greydog: We agree. And here’s an unfair question you may not be able to answer. What blurb would you have written if you didn’t need to explain or promote Hieroglyphs, your own personal summation of the novel?
mike: Hmm. I would say that Hieroglyphs of Blood and Bone is the story of how loneliness and the pain of rejection and loss dropped Guy into a spiral of desperation until he became increasingly disconnected from the “real life” that traumatized him in the first place… but of course disconnecting from your painful existence doesn’t always lead to a happy or stable ending, does it?
greydog: Nope, there are no guarantees. Now, we should let you relax, and say that our only disappointment in the entire book was to find out that steelheads were just trout by another name. Steelheads is a far more evocative term. Do you fish?
mike: Well, steelhead is a specific kind of trout, not like little rainbows. They’re big and heavy, and if you saw one, you’d think it was a salmon. I’m not much of a fisherman, but in college I spent a summer working on a filmmaking internship, helping a crew make instructional fishing films. I learned a lot about the mechanics of gear and tackle, different aspects of a river, and how a fly fisherman goes about trying to hook and land a fish that weighs twenty pounds or so. The fishing stuff, and the unoccupied house on the property along the river, all came from that summer.
greydog: Cool. And maybe we should have more respect for the steelheads. Trout on steroids. Finally, what next? Feel free to hint, tease or promote.
mike: I have several stories “in the can,” awaiting publication in books like the Ramsey Campbell tribute from PS Publishing and Leaves of a Necronomicon from Chaosium, both edited by Joe Pulver, and the first Dim Shores anthology Looming Low, edited by Sam Cowan and Justin Steele. I have a few more stories to write for invitations in the coming months, and I’m preparing to write a longer novel.
Actually for the novel, I’m trying to choose between a few plans, deciding which to tackle first. I expect I’ll be writing a story I think of as Rosemary’s Baby told from the opposite side, about a married couple who find themselves drawn into a strange social milieu, seduced by all the interesting contacts and fun parties and career opportunities of a cult-like group, until everything descends into madness, dark ritual and finally the possibility of events more terrifying and deadly.
greydog: Mike Griffin, many thanks for joining us, and all the best for your forthcoming projects.
mike: It was my pleasure! I appreciate you taking to time to focus attention on my work.
You can find Mike at his website:
Hieroglyphs is linked on the right-hand sidebar, and Lure is available here: